The Argument: The Toll Road Not Taken

A high-tech, planet-friendly, locally made system for collecting turnpike fares is saving states millions. Just not this one. And that tells you everything about Beacon Hill's true priorities.

Illustration by Heather Burke

I do my best not to pick on our toll takers, because it’s really not their fault. Yes, they make more money than most Massachusetts teachers—around $70,000 including overtime, with full benefits, six weeks’ vacation (six! from collecting change!), and 15 sick days. No other toll takers’ collective in the U.S., in fact, can match the veritable suh-weetness of the arrangement enjoyed by our own. But I do my best not to pick on them, as I said, because they don’t deserve the blame. Another bloated Massachusetts collective does.

Let’s pile on the state Senate, House, and executive branch, shall we? Ever since the Weld administration, they’ve promised to curb toll takers’ pay. They keep on promising, because nothing happens. That’s why turnpike boss Alan LeBovidge resigned last month: Hired by Governor Patrick in 2007 basically to fire people, he left when Beacon Hill bureaucracy wouldn’t let him swing the ax. If anything is a metaphor for all that is wrong with Beacon Hill in the Year of Our Lord 2009, it is our reliance on 400 largely shiftless souls to collect ever-increasing fares for outlandish recompense, on a turnpike whose agency was to have gone out of business in the ’60s but is today $2.2 billion in debt. All while the State House is passing up a much cheaper, environmentally friendlier means of collection, a system offered by a Massachusetts firm that has done this sort of work quite successfully throughout the world. But never here.

[sidebar]Call it “open-road tolling,” “cashless tolling”—the idea is the same. You’re traveling on a toll highway, and up ahead you see something like metal scaffolding roughly 20 feet above the ground and spanning the width of the road. You stay in your lane. You do not slow down. As you pass beneath this scaffold (which in the toll business is termed a gantry), it recognizes the Fast Lane–like transponder in your car and deducts the toll from your transponder account. Don’t have a transponder? The system snaps a picture of your license plate, cross-references it with your address, and sends a bill.

Open-road tolling is safer than the Pike’s current Fast Lane/cash hybrid, since no one cuts anyone else off to get to the lane they need. It’s also greener, because cars are never stuck idling for four freakin’ hours on, say, Easter Sunday, inching toward one of the few toll takers who actually deigned to show up. (But, remember, it’s not the toll takers’ fault. You wouldn’t work on Easter, either, if you were already making enough money to forgo the $55-an-hour holiday rate.)

In 1997 Waltham’s very own Raytheon implemented the first open-road system, in Toronto, to considerable acclaim. The company has since worked with, among others, toll agencies in Minnesota, Texas, Chile, and Israel. Dallas’s toll-road authority, for one, estimates its decision to eliminate human toll takers will save it an average of $10 million a year.

In 2007, Massachusetts flirted with an open-road system, or at least a better hybrid system than the one we have. In the end, though, the state backed down. The given reason: It didn’t have the money. The real reason, of course, is that it didn’t have the political will to stand up to 400 toll takers, because the toll takers are a union. (Teamsters Local 127, to be precise. So, a scary union, to boot.)

Our officials say they want us to be the most environment- and tech-friendly state in the country. Apparently just not enough—never enough—to fight for it. As a Patrick administration staffer points out, those Teamsters contracts are “extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change.” And geez, look: We’re approaching election season again. Change can wait just a bit longer, right?